Historian enters an oft neglected zone
Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age By Graeme Davison Allen & Unwin, 274pp, $32.99 Family history has often been despised by professionals. Its practitioners, nicknamed ‘‘genies’’ by librarians, were seen as mere chatterers by austere academics.
In Australia, though, they had a particular tailwind: once the nationalism of the 1960s and 70s made convict ancestors a source of pride — rather than something best passed over in silence — tracing family history became an exploration of involvement in the saga of this country.
Since then, digitisation has brought vast record deposits on line, facilitating a thoroughness of search that would have been the envy of earlier historians. So the accomplished historian Graeme Davison has himself finally succumbed. In Lost Relations he not only tells the story of his ancestors but pushes out family history to new parameters.
There are a number of reasons why professional historians are resistant. One is the dearth of sources: so much of life is lived between those points where it is defined by official records. Davison found, for example, that he had no image of his original emigrating ancestors until they reached stout middle age; and practically no correspondence.
At the same time, what might be seen as the traditionally more female concerns had become obscured: religion, for example, plus the more intimate family history. He picks up, of one family member who lived in Collingwood, that six of her nine children did not survive even to their second birthday. Most likely they were victims of diseases of poverty, such as tuberculosis.
Such sharp particularisation of a broad social trend is one of the rewards of family history. But family histories also tend to become embroidered with myth. Davison’s was no exception: social position has been conferred retrospectively — one ancestor was said to come from London’s fashionable Berkeley Square, rather than the Old Kent Road. There were tales of ‘‘lost millions’’ and talk of visiting an ancestral castle. It makes you wonder why people thought their ancestors would bother to emigrate at all.
Nonetheless, there was a mystery that acted as a hook to engage the historian. He was struck by the way his great-great-grandmother never mentioned the name of the ship she arrived on at Port Phillip. Most unusual: the ship that brought you — particularly when it engendered three planned weddings in her family — had the primal symbolism of the arc.
It turned out that Elizabeth Fenwick had been a needlewoman, one of the struggling, underpaid workers of Victorian London, a group with a reputation for slipping into prostitution to make ends meet. This was so great a danger that a number of Victorian worthies set about organising a scheme: needlewomen of good character were packed off on a ship to Australia — where women were scarce, and where they might make a new life for themselves as someone’s wife.
So there was a taint about being a needlewoman, exacerbated by the extraordinary circumstances of the voyage on the Culloden. The captain was a villain, and continued to act in a wayward fashion once he was in Melbourne. In the meantime he had antagonised his crew, with the result that the passengers were landed in the dark on the beach at Port Melbourne, without any assistance. The Culloden was best forgotten.
Stronger in the book is the countervailing influence of Methodism. Davison is very conscious of his Methodist heritage, even though he recognises that by the time he grew up in Essendon its rituals and morality had survived rather better than its inspiration.
But there it was, the faith of up to one-seventh of Australians, Protestants of the skilled working class and the lower middle class. These were people who valued the virtues of frugality, thrift and punctuality — which gave them a velocity and high achievement while they maintained a culture of no drinking, no gambling, no Sunday shopping or sport.
People opposed to these ideas called them wowsers, killjoys; but Methodists enjoyed a strong sense of community, and, Davison says, a real warmth.
The book effectively ends with Davison’s grandfather — a person who, unable to reach the then rarefied heights of tertiary education, enlarged and satisfied his intellectual aspirations by becoming a printer and lay preacher. For Davison, who inherited his impressive library, he was a mentor figure.
This book benefits throughout from the broader perspectives a trained historian can bring to family history.
The original migration of the Hewett family from rural Hampshire, for example, is explained not only in terms of the sudden death of the breadwinning father or of the landlord’s increasing problems, but of the way the new railway disrupted the farm, and how the collapse in agricultural prices made it impossible to stay on — given the rock-solid nature of rents.
And there are wonderful asides. We need to remember, Davison points out, that ‘‘until the arrival of the steam locomotive, colonial Victoria ran on grain. Bread and porridge were the main human fuels; oats and wheat chaff, along with grass, were the main sources of animal power.’’
There is a strong presence of the author in this book. This compensates for the lack of interaction between the characters, for want of documentation. Instead, there is a constant reporting back to the reader.
Davison communicates his relief on finding that a particular miscreant is not, when he searches further, an ancestor at all. Even so, he finds one who spent some time in Maitland jail for passing a forged cheque.
He is easily embarrassed by any hint of misdemeanour. This extends to a fire in Williamstown which was started accidentally by his great-grandmother, and resulted in a death.
After 130 years, it might be thought that the tragedy could be judged to have lost all capacity to cause any family distress.
Anyone interested in family history should read this book. Instead of parochialism, it offers a series of microcosms. It is the work of a master practitioner.